“Sufficient Ground for Understanding and Absolution:” Thinking about Violence in Light of Our Reading This Week

This week, we’ve talked about a lot of violence. We read Heaney’s poetic descriptions of the bog bodies and witnessed death at the hands of the state and at the hands of the revolutionaries in The Informer and Uptight. We’ve also learned about The Troubles and three Bloody Sundays, two in Ireland and one in America. For anyone interested, Wikipedia acknowledges twenty “Bloody Sundays” around the world in the last century and a half.

This week, we also encountered Ciaran Carson’s reading of Heaney’s bog body poems, where he says, “It is as if he is saying suffering like this is natural; these things have always happened; they happened then, they happen now, and that is sufficient ground for understanding and absolution. It is as if there never were and never will be any political consequences of such acts.” At the very least, the assertion that “these things have always happened” seems to make sense in light of what we’ve seen.

Additionally, in her post on Uptight this week, Professor Kinyon highlighted two cases in 1963 where African-Americans were murdered and justice was not handed out until decades later. The INCORE article similarly noted that, in an attempt to heal the wounds still open from the Troubles, the police force in Ulster created a team in 2005 to investigate many unsolved murders from the time period. While justice was eventually served out in both the African-American and Irish contexts, the tremendous delay justifies Heaney’s perspective that there never would be any political consequences of violence and suffering.

Thus, the only question remaining to determine whether Heaney’s perspective, specifically in Punishment, is correct is whether the continuity of suffering and violence and the low consequences for it are sufficient grounds for understanding the side of the perpetrator and absolving them. Is the idea that violence just happens enough for us to understand and then absolve people from it?

I would disagree with this idea: the continuity of violence does not justify it. At some point, Heaney did not agree with this assertion either. In his article in the Listener, he castigates the Black Panthers for their openly violent rhetoric. To Heaney, it is grotesque and uncivil; the Black Panthers’ violence is not understood or absolved. Plainly, he sees it as wrong.

While the difference between his characterization of violence in The Troubles and violence in the later stages of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States could be explained by an outsider’s view of the Black Panthers, I would argue that the difference, instead, shows a lack of understanding of revolution. Revolution is based on the idea that the suffering and violence afflicted on the oppressed are not natural or justifiable. While the IRA and Black Panthers may have believed that the path to ending this suffering was inflicting suffering on the opposition, the core of any civil rights movement is an understanding that violence is not natural and understanding violence is not a reason to absolve the enemy, but rather to seek to end that suffering. While “these things have always happened,” the continuity of violence does not excuse the crime.